How are you feeling about the current state of the world, Reader? Yeah, me too.This week’s theme is dystopian novels…
Firstly, The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman (2014) which I first heard about over on Naomi’s blog. Ice Cream Fifteen Star lives sometime in the future, in the Nighted States, at a time when a disease called posies means life expectancy is around eighteen years.
“Posies grown inside and outside, blackish death put roots into your body and its flowers bloom.”
A disease called WAKS – which may or may not be the same as posies – has wiped out ‘sleepers’, the white population. The children and young adults who make up the surviving population of the Nighted States grow up quickly. Ice Cream is a hunter, sergeant to her tribe – the Sengles – and under pressure to hurry up and have a baby before she too succumbs to posies.
“The dusking sleep of Lowell City take my loneliness. I ride home to my full-grown trouble, to my people few and feary small, my Sengle town.”
Ice Cream Star is a wonderful protagonist: strong, feisty, dynamic. The language that Newman has created for her is highly effective, capturing a sense of new speech for a new world, a world where ‘standard’ English no longer holds dominance or relevance. The language furthers the context of a story told by a young woman of colour, where to be middle aged and white is ‘Other’. This is not a future where an older, white, middle-class patriarchy dominate. When Ice Cream meets a white man in his thirties, a “roo”, the lines on his face, blond hair and blue eyes are deeply odd to her.
“Something liven in his frosten eyes, like water stirred by fish.”
This never entirely goes away, even as the two become deeply bonded. The fact that roos live longer, that they may have a cure for posies, takes on a new urgency as Ice-Cream’s beloved older brother, Driver, starts to show signs of the disease.
“My brother lain like sleeping water, loose. Arm rest above the covers, and his hand itself look easy. I touch his shoulder careful, and his breath pause like a question. I hold my breath along. Sigh gratty when he breathe again.”
Ice Cream and her roo set out on a quest for a cure, taking them into contact with other tribes, danger and desolate cities, long abandoned.
“And the cloud slow from the moon. Light give back its silver grief. Empty towers sharpen, like a goliath monument of loss; a burial yard of giants left upon the fearing world.”
The Country of Ice Cream Star is a novel of big themes: gender, race, religion, civilisation, war. As I was reading it I first thought it was about 100 pages too long (its 629 pages in my edition) but now I’m not sure. It may have just been where my mind was when I was reading it – stressed out & tired! Having finished it a few weeks ago, the novel – and particularly the idiosyncratic, poetic voice of Ice Cream Star – have really stayed with me. She’s a truly unique heroine.
In the Country of Ice Cream Star also reminded me of a film I saw a few years back, Beasts of the Southern Wild, which featured a similarly impressive female protagonist and an astonishing lead performance by Quvenzhané Wallis, the youngest Best Actress Oscar nominee ever:
Secondly, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005), which was shortlisted for the Booker. We are categorically told the setting is “England, late 1990s”, and so this is an alternative version of recent history in a recogniseable land. Ishiguro cleverly drip-feeds the reader information so that you slowly piece together what is happening to make this different to the “England, late 1990s” we know. As such, to avoid spoilers, this will be an uncharacteristically short discussion 😉
The narrator Kath describes growing up at a residential school, Hailsham, and her friendship with fellow students Ruth and Tommy. Gradually, Kath starts to realise that there is something about Hailsham students, utterly cut off from the outside world, which sets them apart from other people.
“So you’re waiting, even if you don’t quite know it, waiting for the moment when you realise that you really are different to them; that there are people out there… who don’t hate you or wish you any harm, but who nevertheless shudder at the very thought of you – of how you brought into this world and why – and who dread the idea of your hand brushing against theirs. The first time you glimpse yourself through the eyes of a person like that, it’s a cold moment. It’s like walking past a mirror that you’ve walked past every day of your life, and suddenly it shows you something else, something troubling and strange.”
On the one hand, as Kath explores her relationship with Ruth and Tommy, it is a simple tale of three people and the dynamics between them, the deep love they hold for one another alongside the petty betrayals they inflict on one another.
“I now felt awful, and I was confused. But as we stood there staring at the fog and rain, I could think of no way now to repair the damage I’d done… then after a few further seconds of silence, Ruth walked off into the rain.”
But of course it’s so much more, because Ishiguro is a complex writer interested in difficult subjects, and he is exploring how we work out our place in the world and how much of that is pre-determined. Although the novel could be described as science fiction, it shares much with his Booker winning The Remains of the Day, being about transience, lost opportunities, duty and regret.
“‘I keep thinking about this river somewhere, and the water moving really fast. And these two people in the water, trying to hold onto each other, holding on as hard as they can, but in the end it’s just too much. The current’s too strong. They’ve got to let go, drift apart. That’s how I think it is with us. It’s a shame, Kath, because we’ve loved each other all our lives. But in the end, we can’t stay together forever.’”
As I was reading this, I was thinking: why don’t they fight? Why do they just unquestioningly accept their lot? Why don’t they rail against those dictating how they spend their lives? Don’t they want more? Why aren’t they kicking against it all and demanding justice? And then I realised this is Ishiguro’s master stroke. It’s not science fiction he’s writing. Why aren’t I doing more of those things, for myself and for others?
Never Let Me Go was adapted in 2010 into a film starring Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield, as well as my long standing girl-crush Charlotte Rampling (I basically want to be her/Jane Birkin, fluent in French with artfully dishevelled hair, living a bohemian transcontinental life. Never going to happen.) All the spoilers I’ve so carefully avoided are included in this trailer, so don’t click play if you don’t want to know!